An e-Portfolio by Kirstin Pantazis

Searching for Justice in Higher Education

Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce’s report on public colleges and racial privilege is a data filled essay on the continuing need for affirmative action policies within higher education. Unfortunately, the report does not go far enough by stopping its suggestions at affirmative action policies that increase access for historically disadvantaged populations. Further, the reports language is potentially damaging these populations by reinforcing the idea that open access institutions are low quality options. The report does not address the fact that many students in open access colleges do not intend to earn a bachelor’s degree. Are these students being included in the calculations of degree attainment used in this report? In Virginia and across the nation, the majority of open access institutions are community colleges, most of which do not offer bachelor’s degrees. Therefore, bachelor’s degree attainment must be looked at not just as a product of open access quality or initial acceptance at selective institutions, but also as a product of transfer student access and success. The report oversimplifies.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly struck down policies that use quotas in admissions processes. Quota is defined by Merriam-Webster as a proportional part or share. The arguments presented to support affirmative action, such as those in the Georgetown University report, all revolve around the number of students at a given institution not being proportional to the number of that group of students in the general population. At the heart of the affirmative action debate is the issue that our institutions, our government, and all of society, rely on data, on numbers, to define our problems and measure our progress towards our goals.  At the same time, the highest court in our land waffles between not allowing the use of quotas and requiring specific and definitive proof (via data) as the basis for college admissions policies. Higher education admissions procedures are being held hostage by our supreme court.  Our supreme court is well versed in legal practice, but they are not necessarily well versed in current education theory or the current ethical theories that drive our higher education institutions and their policies.

One such current ethical theory that is widely used at higher education institutions is that of justice as fairness. This theory, begun by John Rawls, posits that social inequalities, such as admissions procedures, should exist when they are designed to benefit the least advantaged members of society. It seems to me that our justice system and our education system are working from two ethical theories that are not compatible. What we need is a more widely accepted definition of what justice is, or what ethical framework we use, so that we can all work towards the same goals.

In reviewing the long list of court cases and political policies that narrowly define affirmative action I wonder that higher education institutions manage to function at all. I am amazed that educational leaders are not paralyzed by fear of running afoul of a muddled legal morass that is affirmative action law. Having read and discussed the laws, college policies, how we got to where we are, and arguments for and against affirmative action it is my belief that the only way for an educational leader to move forward is to root themselves in an ethical framework that they believe in, to stay abreast of current legal cases that may affect their institutions, to hire a crack legal team to represent the institution, and then to move forward.  Crafting policy and procedure that align with the institution’s mission and values and with their personal ethics should be the leader’s first concern followed closely by working to ensure that any policy is defensible by current or past legal standards. The law, and the supreme court’s interpretation of it, changes regularly. Leaders must learn to live with uncertainty and be sure of their motives such that they are willing to defend them in a court of law – and then move forward, willing to work towards a better future and unafraid of fighting for their beliefs in court.

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1 Comment

  1. “What we need is a more widely accepted definition of what justice is, or what ethical framework we use, so that we can all work towards the same goals.”

    Yes, that. What does a systemic commitment to anti-racism and/or decolonization look like for college admissions? Is there an abolitionist angle to admissions? If so, what would that look like? Thank you for causing me to ask these questions and to think about answers.

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